Instagram announced on Wednesday, in a short company blog post, that it would make the app more accessible to the visually impaired.
“With more than 285 million people in the world who have visual impairments, we know there are many people who could benefit from a more accessible Instagram,” the company wrote, before describing the new functionality: alternative text descriptions for photos in the Feed and the Explore sections of the app, which would allow screen-reading software to automatically describe photos out loud to users.
Users can manually add the descriptions in the advanced settings of their posts, only a slight tweak from what many accessibility-conscious users were doing already — putting more detailed or literal descriptions of their photos directly in the image’s caption. More importantly, Instagram will use its object recognition capabilities to automatically generate descriptions for images that the poster doesn’t provide them for.
Responses to the addition were generally warm, with the company receiving thanks from visually impaired users in reply to the announcement tweet. But the change was also widely discussed on Twitter as merely a start, particularly in the #a11y hashtag — a shorthand for an online accessibility movement called the A11Y Project, which shares open source accessibility-friendly software information on GitHub and operates a blog about design and internet community.
The Royal National Institute of Blind People, a British charity, commended Instagram, tweeting congrats on the company’s commitment to accessibility, but also asked that the feature be extended to Stories — important, considering 40 percent of the platform’s 1 billion users post to their Story every day.
Louise Taylor, a software engineer at the BBC, tweeted that the feature would perhaps be slightly more usable “if the option to add alt text was easier to find than by clicking on a button with very questionable contrast.”
Facebook, for its part, has had artificial intelligence-generated alternative text as an accessibility feature since April 2016, and allowed users to manually input text for some time before that. Even setting aside the challenges of AI, manual input options for alternative text are more or less standard across the web, and Twitter added them in 2016.